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Rape conviction rests in part on AOL instant message

A Virginia court says that instant messages apologizing for an alleged rape can be used as evidence against a defendant in court.

A Virginia appeals court has upheld a defendant's rape conviction based in part on an AOL instant message.

The Virginia Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that instant messages were properly used as evidence against Myron J. Turman, who was convicted of raping his friend, a woman called S.J. in court documents. Her real name is not listed.

The incident took place on the evening of October 5, 2002, when S.J. arrived home in Fairfax County around 3 a.m. from a nightclub in Washington, D.C. Turman met her in the parking lot and followed her inside.

S.J. and Turman had had consensual sex at least one time before. This time, according to S.J., she asked Turman to leave and he refused. Instead, he raped her and only left when she called the police.

A few months later, S.J. claims to have received an instant message from "Myron109" saying that he was high on the drug ecstasy and "I just wanted to apologize." Turman had previously used the Myron109 screen name when communicating with her.

What's a little unusual is that S.J. never actually kept the alleged electronic confession. She later testified that it simply never occurred to her to print or save the conversation. So it amounted to her word against his--neither the defense nor the prosecution seems to have thought of sending a subpoena to AOL to see if any server logs existed.

It's true that Turman could have landed in prison even without the alleged IM confession--but we'll never know for sure.

This is not the first time that IMs have been used in court, of course. I wrote in June about how teenage murderers were convicted through their IM logs. In April, I wrote about a case involving a sensual masseuse who was allegedly paid for sex--and cited IM transcripts in an unsuccessful lawsuit against an ex-customer for $1.5 million.

For his part, Turman admitted that he had sex with S.J. on the evening of October 5 but claimed it was consensual. He said that his screen name was indeed Myron109 but that he did not send a subsequent apology to S.J. Two of his friends and his estranged wife had access to that AOL account and likely sent the message, he said.

The trial judge ruled, however, that S.J.'s recollection of the message was admissible--based on the exception to the hearsay rule permitting admissions of guilt. "It is clear that an original printed message was unavailable, and the trial court properly allowed S.J. to testify as to the content of the messages that appeared on her computer screen," the appeals court said. "The trial court did not abuse its discretion in allowing S.J. to testify as to the messages she received on her computer."